Germany Pins Hopes on Future As It Marks Pain of Jewish Past

The laying of the cornerstone for a new Jewish community center here, where Hitler attempted his failed coup in 1923, represents a milestone in postwar Jewish life in Germany.

The event, both solemn and joyful, marked the 65th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom of Nov. 9-10, 1938, when hundreds of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses were destroyed across Germany and Austria by Nazi- inspired thugs.

“Those who build, stay,” Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Jewish community of Munich and Upper Bavaria, told some 700 guests Sunday under a tent at the construction site.

Recalling the terror of Kristallnacht, Knobloch, who survived the war in hiding, said, “The tears that I shed as a 6-year-old girl have never stopped.”

Today, many Jews here still say they live with a packed suitcase always at the ready.

But now, Knobloch said, she was ready to unpack her symbolic bags.

“Because today, exactly 65 years later, I have really come home,” she said.

The event contrasted with what happened in Austria, where clashes erupted at a Vienna ceremony marking Kristallnacht’s anniversary after protesters waved Palestinian flags and yelled anti-Israel slogans.

At the German commemoration, clergy and politicians from across the spectrum agreed that the building of a Jewish community center in the middle of the Bavarian capital was a sign of confidence in the future, despite recent scandals involving anti-Semitism in the Parliament and army, and despite the arrest in September of 14 neo-Nazis who allegedly planned to detonate a bomb at the ceremony.

“We can feel how contradictory the feelings and thoughts are on this day,” German President Johannes Rau said, adding that it is the duty of Germans “to do everything possible to ensure that such things will never happen again.”

Then the day of remembrance “can also be a day of joy and optimism,” Rau said.

As neighbors watched from windows and balconies, three small boys in yarmulkes placed memorial items in the triangular cornerstone, which was lowered into place at the construction site.

The sounds of the El Maleh Rachamim memorial prayer echoed across the red-tiled roof of the adjacent Munich City Museum.

In a tent at the construction site, the invited guests watched the event — which also was broadcast live on Bavarian TV — on large video screens.

“We think of all those Jews who ever lived in Munich, we think of those Munich Jews who lost their lives in pogroms in the Middle Ages,” Hans-Jochen Vogel, the former mayor of Munich, said in his speech dedicating the cornerstone.

Vogel, who as a boy watched his town’s synagogue burn down before becoming a soldier in the Nazi army years later, said he — like many others — had failed to oppose the Nazi regime despite his own questions and doubts.

He said he had tried, since 1945, to learn from the past. The Kristallnacht ceremony this week moved him “like no other day” in his life, Vogel said.

The new community center, with a synagogue, kindergarten, school and museum, is expected to meet the needs of a growing population.

Since 1990, the number of Jews in Munich has doubled to 8,000. During that time, the overall Jewish population in Germany has tripled 100,000, thanks to the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Unlike many prewar Jewish venues, the center will not be located in an interior courtyard, out of view of the public.

The cost for the land and the complex is estimated at approximately $82 million and will be covered by the Jewish community, the state of Bavaria, the semi-private Bavarian state trust, the city of Munich and private donations. Construction is expected to be completed by the end of 2006.

The event, which took place under sunny skies and with tight security, capped a day during which the names of Jews deported from Munich were read aloud at solemn gatherings across the city.

Munich’s prewar Jewish population was about 9,000. Many fled, but an estimated 5,000 were deported and very few survived the Holocaust.

With the past in mind, speakers condemned the recent anti-Semitic statements of Christian Democratic Union lawmaker Martin Hohmann, whose Oct. 3 speech comparing Jews in the Russian Revolution to Nazis has set the stage for his ejection from his party.

“Such unholy historical comparisons are the beginning — they lead in the end to deliberate falsification of history,” said Edmund Stoiber, governor of the state of Bavaria and member of the Christian Democratic Union’s sister party, the Christian Socialist Union.

Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said Germans are becoming dangerously accustomed to hate crimes and right-wing extremist views.

“Indifference makes it easier for right-wing, anti-Semitic arsonists to spread their views,” Spiegel said. Hohmann’s presence in Parliament should be unacceptable to everyone, not just members of minority groups, he said.

Incendiary statements are only the first step, Rau said. Those who relativize history “are placing explosives at the cornerstone of our society.”

In fact, right-wing extremists had considered exploding 3.5 pounds of TNT at the construction site. The Federal Prosecutor’s office recently confirmed reports that, in February, Jewish groups and Munich Mayor Christian Ude had received letters warning about violence if work continues on the Jewish community center.

Their plans were thwarted, but the news sent alarm through Germany’s Jewish community, which also sees threats coming from Islamic extremists.

Members of a fundamentalist Islamic group who are on trial in Dusseldorf recently said they had been staking out Jewish venues in Berlin and Dusseldorf for possible attacks.

The dangers should not be overlooked, said Bernd Wagner, director of the Berlin-based Center for Democratic Culture. Though right-wing extremists and Islamic extremists normally do not cooperate, some right-wing extremists do overcome their racist tendencies when it comes to their “friends in the fight against Jews,” Wagner told JTA in a telephone interview.

The thwarted attack on the site of Munich’s future Jewish community center “has a symbolic effect,” said Juliane Wetzel, a historian with the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism in Berlin. “The center is much more public” than most Jewish venues in Germany, “and right-wing extremists are also tending to do things that are more public today,” she said.

“A lot of extremists say they are only saying aloud what a high percentage of the population thinks, and that is true in connection with foreigners,” Wetzel said.

But German Jewish leaders say such threats do not shake their confidence.

“There are always some minorities who want to destroy everything, but the majority of the German population — and not just the government, is enjoying this event today,” said Nathan Kalmanowicz, a vice president of Munich’s Jewish community and a member of the board of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

NEXT STORY